Student Email Communication: Reining in the Unprofesh

Many of us develop our first professional relationships in college, and all UIC students, whether or not they realize it, have professional relationships by default: their relationships as students to UIC faculty and staff. For some students, these relationships involve a transition to more professional styles of communication.

“Students underestimate what’s at stake in email communication,” says UIC Business professor Bill Kohler. “They forget that they trade in goodwill when they write and speak to others. A relationship can improve or decline according to the quality of communication.” The checklist below can help you maintain good relationships and basic professionalism during your time at UIC.

1. Weigh the need

Before sending an email, ask yourself whether you need to send it. Are you asking for information that the professor has already given you? Check your syllabus and any previous communications. Are you asking for information that’s available online? Exhaust the FAQ pages and other online resources before clicking 'send'.

2. Use your UIC email account

Your friends might think that your personal email address is funny, but your professors might not. An unprofessional email address can make a bad impression that could be hard to undo.

3. The subject line

“The most common student mistake is a poor subject line,” says Professor Kohler. “A student sends me the subject line, ‘meeting canceled’. Which meeting? When was it scheduled, and what was it about?” Another common mistake: a subject line like ‘class question’. Which class? Are you faculty, student, or staff, or are you even affiliated with UIC? A clear subject line helps your recipient respond to your request.

4. Address your reader

“I get a lot of, ‘Hey Mr. Kohler’ or worse, just ‘Hey’. Use ‘Dear Professor’, ‘Dear Dr.’, ‘Dear Mr.’ or ‘Dear Ms.’, or if those feel too formal in some cases, ‘Hello, Professor Kohler.’” Also, make sure you spell your recipient’s prefix and name correctly, and don’t use a nickname unless they’ve asked you to. For more on the appropriate use of courtesy titles, check out this great NPR piece.

5. Be direct

“The second most common student mistake is length. Don’t give me three hundred words on why you can’t make it to class. Tell me in the first sentence, and if you need to justify the absence, try to do so in one additional sentence,” says Professor Kohler. “And in general, use straightforward language. No ‘I was wondering if’ or ‘I was thinking that’; state it plainly.”

6. Formal language

“Avoid acronyms - FYI, BTW, etc. - as well as abbreviations, slang and phrases that are too informal. Students will write me, 'just want to give you a heads up'; a student doesn’t give a professor a ‘heads up’. That isn’t the tone of the relationship.”

7. Close

“Sincerely,” “Best,” “Thank you,” - any of these will do. And if you haven't already, add a signature block to your UIC email that gives your role at UIC (“Student”), your department and your UIC email address. This way, anyone who jumps on the email thread will know who else is in the conversation. When emailing student services, include your UIN number in the signature.

8. Proofread

This can’t be stressed enough. Always re-read an email before sending it. If you have time, save it as a draft and read it fifteen minutes later, or if it’s a highly important email, have a friend or family member read it for you.

9. Follow up

Faculty and staff receive hundreds of emails on a daily basis. If you follow the steps above, yours will have a good chance of getting a quick response. However, if you don’t receive a response within three business days, follow up gently and politely, observing all of the formalities above.

“The good news,” says Professor Kohler, “is that student communication improves with a little effort. Directness, concision, tone - these thing all develop with practice.” At UIC Business, all undergraduate students take Managerial Communications (BA 200), which gives them everything they need to communicate effectively with future employers and coworkers.

If you're eager to get some practice, email bizadmit@uic.edu with any questions about professional communications or the programs at UIC Business. For more information on UIC Business and student life, visit website, business.uic.edu. I hope to see you on campus soon!